Power dressing

26 Sep

One way or another there’s been a lot of talk about dress codes lately. Last week law firm Slater Gordon released a survey which found that female workers are still scrutinised on appearance to a much greater extent than men, and that some are even actively instructed by bosses to change their clothing for the sake of business.  What changes are women expected to make? To wear high heels and make-up in client-facing roles, sometimes with the explicit suggestion to be ‘sexier’.

In 2016 it’s pretty depressing that expectations of female appearance should still centre around a particular version of what it is to be female.  And the real trouble is that senior staff (predominantly men) still find it acceptable to tell working women how to dress.  The point is that it should be up to women themselves how they choose to present themselves, within the levels of formality demanded by their role.  Dress is performative – we show aspects of conformity, individuality and identity through our choices – it can be a manner of showing all sorts of things about who we are.  To be told how to be is not a good look for the modern workplace. Nicola Thorpe’s campaign earlier this year to prevent employers from imposing the wearing of heels, gained high profile and made an important point about how expectations of appearance can turn into compulsion, which is a bad thing. Campaigns in support of flats shoes at work have followed, and have been good at showing how stylishness can take many forms with no relation to professional competence, but have sometimes tipped towards telling women not to wear heels at work. This seems like falling into the enforcement trap again.

It all got me thinking about how we negotiate our work appearance in the light of personal preferences and social cues. And it’s not just an issue for women.  Back in August research was published showing that City firms could pass over male candidates who wore the ‘wrong’ shoes with their suits.  Men without experience of mixing in these professional circles, often those from less advantaged backgrounds, might turn up for interview in brown, rather than black shoes, a potent indicator of lack of ‘polish’ which could cost them a job offer.  Like junior women being told to wear more make-up by their bosses, these men are in less powerful positions than the senior people assessing their presentability.

So what of the powerful men?  What are they wearing as they pass judgement on their more junior staff?  The answer is, of course, the suit.  The suit is the ultimate signifier of authority, the sign of the professional who means business.  Its subdued colours and ubiquity confer a kind of invisibility, and we forget its roots in military history, the jacket vents for horse riding, the shoulder line for epaulettes – reminders of established male power. When we think of leadership, we picture men in suits.  As Grayson Perry has written ‘The very aesthetic of seriousness has been monopolised by Default Man’.

And this notion of seriousness is at the heart of the problems with dress code.  Women can find it particularly hard to win on this one.  ‘Power dressing’ is often a matter of taking on the suit mantle – tailored jackets, dark trousers.   Or adapted via a pencil skirt or a dress under a jacket into a more feminine version of the same.  The paradox is, that should a woman take up advice to wear more make-up and heels, she may meet one set of criteria for ‘smartness’ but lose on another to do with being taken seriously. The men in suits still rule, and they can still look at the world with a male gaze.

Coverage of the dress code survey included examples of women negotiating this minefield – a barrister drawing sceptical looks and not being taken seriously when wearing a colourful dress in court, hospitality staff being asked to tone down make-up that was seen a ‘too much’ for highbrow clientele.  And you don’t have to look far for examples of academics or of MPs being underestimated because they happen to be presentable and female while doing their jobs.  Tonight Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will meet in the first of this year’s presidential debates, and Hillary is likely to be wearing one of her infamous pantsuits, her solution (like Angela Merkel’s) to the ‘what do powerful women wear amongst all the men in suits?’ conundrum.  Tomorrow we should be talking about what she said, and not about her pantsuit.  That would be presidential.










Lazy Friday (with apologies to the Small Faces)

10 Sep

A-wouldn’t it be nice to get on with me neighbours?
But they make it very clear, they’ve got no room for Brexiteers

They stop me from groovin’, they won’t build me wall

They doing me Regional Development crust in, it’s no good at all, ah
Lazy Friday afternoon
I’ve got no mind to worry
I close my eyes and drift away-a
Here we all are sittin’ in a rainbow
Gor blimey, hello Mrs. May, how’s old Guy Verhofstadt’s negotiatin’? (he mustn’t grumble)
(Tweedle-dee) I’ll sing you a song with no words and no tune (twiddly-dee)
To sing in your Party while you souse at the moon (oh yeah)
Lazy Friday afternoon, I’ve got no mind to worry
Close my eyes and drift away-a

Root-de-doo-de-doo, a-root-and-branch-recovery
A-root-de-doot-de-dum, a-root-and-branch-recovery…




Brexit Brainstorming – or Fifty Ways to Leave the EU (with apologies to Paul Simon)

31 Aug

The problem is all inside our heads

She said to us

Brexit is easy if you

Take it logically

I’d like to help you in your struggle

To be free

There must be fifty ways

To leave the EU


She said it’s really not my habit

To intrude

Furthermore, I hope my meaning

Won’t be lost or misconstrued

But I’ll repeat myself

Brexit is Brexit

And there must be fifty ways

To leave the EU

Fifty ways to leave the EU


You just slip out the back (Gove)

Make a new plan, David

You don’t need to be coy, Liam

Just get yourself free

Paint stats on a bus, Boris

You don’t need to discuss much

Just drop off the key, Andrea

And get yourself free


She said it grieves me so

To see you still think of Remain

I wish there was something I could do

To make you smile again

We said we appreciate that

And would you please explain

About triggering Article 50?


She said why don’t we all

Just sleep on it tonight

After this brainstorming

You’re sure to see the light

And then she glared at us

And we realised she probably was right

There must be fifty ways

To leave the EU

Fifty ways to leave the EU




Trump Topped?

7 Aug

Now that senior politicians have reached the ‘how could you?’ stage in addressing Donald Trump’s supporters, it seems like a good moment to turn the question around. Why would anyone vote for Donald Trump?  And more particularly, given his particular brand of unabashed sexism and empathy-free haranguing of women, why would any woman vote for the potential President Trump?

2016 has been a year of the unexpected where politics is concerned, so it’s important to consider every eventuality. The eventuality of a Trump presidency is still possible.  No-one expected the Trump nomination would happen, but here we are. And we are here because Republican women did vote for Trump – in April 44% of Republican women supported him  – higher than female support for other Republican candidates at that stage.  In spite of frequently running into ‘woman problems’ – over issues as wide-ranging as insulting female journalists, proposing punishment for abortion, discussing ‘hotness’ of female family members – Trump has his nomination. He faces Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee in American history – about whom he has said just about everything. Most recently he has cast her as the devil.  But even as his poll ratings have tanked over the last week, it would be foolish to underestimate his core support.

Politics in the US and Europe has taken an anti-establishment turn.  Lack of economic growth and any improvement in living standards for many people is a major issue. However, this is not just about economic inequality, but wider concerns around values and identity and distance from power – successfully wrapped up here in the EU referendum campaign under the banner of ‘taking back control’.  Donald Trump connects to a similar sentiment among American voters who perceive their country changing negatively, when he talks about ‘making America great again’.  On both sides of the Atlantic, appeals to national sovereignty – and perhaps also to a better past – have been viewed as mainly gaining support from working-class men.  Newsflash: women can feel forgotten too. Feeling ‘safe’ under a strong leader like Trump, is one of the factors cited by women who would vote for him.  Whether they actually believe in his wall to stem immigration at the border – paid for by Mexicans – the idea that a President will act directly to address cultural concerns, may be persuasive, if you think that politicians aren’t routinely listening to you.

But why would women support a candidate who is so frequently sexist?  Part of Trump’s appeal is that he is seen as plain-speaking, voicing his own thoughts rather than scripted policies.  Many female Republicans think their party is a ‘boys club’ with little time for women supporters, so may take the view that he is simply expressing what others think, but don’t say. Perhaps the very public rows that result from Trump’s comments are more entertaining or immediate, than dry coverage of Washington policy positions.  Or maybe some voters don’t even notice that he has said things – e.g that women who are harassed at work should change jobs; or that a Muslim woman who lost her soldier son may have been told to say nothing on the platform she shared with her husband – because they get news from sources that are Trump-supporting –  or may not follow news at all, and simply turn up at the rally for their man.  A recent article in the Guardian found that Trump supporters variously hadn’t heard about the controversy over his comments about Ghazala Khan, or were not offended by them.  In another piece, a woman from Tennessee declared that it didn’t matter much what Trump said at the moment as most people were on holiday and would vote for Donald come November.

After all, it’s still only August and a lot can change over a week – let alone a couple of months – in politics.  We found that out in this country as the polls moved around in the lead-up to the EU referendum – and still the result came as a surprise to the ‘elites’ who lost on a campaign based on facts and fear. (Though how old-Etonian Boris Johnson or gold-plated billionaire Trump are not also seen as establishment men is a moot point).  If other American politicians don’t want Trump to be President they need to show some emotion and positivity, not just a list of statistics.  One American commentator recently summed things up with the view that ‘we’ve brought fact checkers to a culture war’. While Hillary Clinton appears to have gained from a positive convention, passion is hardly her middle name.  She may yet need to find some – especially as distrust in her is a factor both for ‘soft’ Republicans, and for Sanders supporters who need some indication that their man has changed the Democrats’ agenda.

For all that Trump’s support base continues to show resilience, there are signs that he needs to do a lot more to secure victory.  In light of widespread anti-establishment feeling, it may be less important that many of the Republican great and good have begun to withdraw support, and more important to concentrate on electoral arithmetic.  Pollsters have homed in on the key demographics where the election will be decided.  Inconveniently for Trump, a critical group is white college-educated women who are leaning Democrat.  The question that really matters may actually be, why would these women vote for Donald Trump?  Candidates’ daughters have been brought in to address this group, but Ivanka may not be a good enough answer.  If we don’t want Trump as President, we have to hope they want to go to Chelsea.









Representation, Parliament and Brexit

24 Jul

There’s been a kind of perfect storm of issues to do with representation in the last couple of months – what with the male-heavy campaigns for Leave and Remain in the EU referendum; the result which called it for Brexit, and the accompanying discussion around distance between political elites and ordinary people; and assessment of the impact of our new, second female Prime Minister.  Both major political parties have also been embroiled in leadership contests which have presented different approaches to the question of representation of party membership, and parliamentary representation of the electorate.

Into this maelstrom arrives a new report by Professor Sarah Childs, ‘The Good Parliament’, which addresses how the institution may become more diverse and inclusive.  It is an opportune moment to consider representation in Parliament: not only is it the centenary of the Acts which extended voting rights to working-class men and the first women, but the need to refurbish our Parliament buildings presents a rare chance to experiment with physical and procedural infrastructure. These factors, along with the support of the Speaker, who has founded a Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion to carry ideas forward, mean that there is a unique opportunity to potentially transform Parliament into an institution which more closely represents the society it serves.  With only 29% of MPs currently female, and only 6% drawn from minority ethnic backgrounds, this is surely overdue; and the long decline in numbers of parliamentarians drawn from working-class backgrounds also needs to be addressed.  While the report does not deal with the EU referendum, it seems to me that it has added relevance because of it.  In the wake of evidence that the Brexit vote was carried by people living in former industrial heartlands of the UK, and in more deprived communities, working-class representation in politics could hardly be higher on the agenda.

The report looks at how diversity could be strengthened throughout Parliament’s work and practices. This includes measures to improve the family-friendliness of parliament – involving policies around maternity, paternity and parental leave, more flexibility in voting arrangements, and the headline-grabbing recommendation that breastfeeding should be better accommodated.  As Jo Swinson has already pointed out, the media focus on breastfeeding, which is a relatively minor recommendation in the report, says a lot about how far we have to go in discussions of diversity, especially as it applies to women in public life.

Childs highlights the importance of better representativeness in Select Committees, the parliamentary bodies which hold government to account.  She says that in 2016 it is ‘undesirable’ that some Committees are highly skewed in terms of gender in their membership.  This matters, because many of the Committees considered most important or prestigious, e.g. Foreign Affairs, are disproportionately male.  Meanwhile, the Women and Equalities Committee initially contained only one man, and now has two male MPs among its members.  The report mentions the blog I wrote last year, which remarked that this committee is also novice-heavy and that it would be good to think that ‘women and equalities really matter to the big beasts in politics – most of whom are still middle-aged men’.  The Good Parliament recommends that single gender Select Committees are prohibited, and that parties become more ‘mindful of wider representativeness’ in electing committee members.  This awareness of representativeness extends to committee witnesses as well – the experts invited to contribute should also be more diverse.

During the referendum debate, Michael Gove made the now notorious comment that we’ve ‘had enough of experts’; there’s been a strong suggestion that this view may have gained traction because ‘experts’ are so often the ‘usual suspects’: white, older men.  By looking beyond this group, the valuable work of many female and non-white professionals and academics would be recognised and reflected back to us all.

Representativeness also matters in media – the lens through which we receive information about politics and Parliament.  Lobby journalism remains even more male-dominated than other areas, and Childs advocates that Parliament works towards a situation where monitoring ensures that neither men nor women drop below 40% of lobby pass recipients.  This move would potentially encourage more diverse reportage, and help insure against any tendency towards ‘groupthink’ in political coverage.

As the dust begins to settle on the turbulent last month in British politics, Childs’ report should be part of the landscape in which we discuss post-referendum Britain. The ministers appointed to the Department for Exiting the European Union (DEEU) and Department for International Trade (DIT) – the new departments central to implementing  Brexit – are exclusively male. As we gear up to make the best of post-Brexit Britain we should ensure that diverse voices are heard.  There is a Select Committee for every government department – hopefully the ones for DEEU and DIT will not hear exclusively from white men of a certain class.








A century is a long time in politics …

1 Jul

I remember very clearly the first time I heard the word ‘quagmire’ – it was when I was in secondary school studying the First World War.  Our history teacher was rather old school, and after a brief outline of the day’s topic and a bit of class discussion, he would dictate notes to us.  As he expounded on the nature of trench warfare, the horrors of going over the top, and the terrible physical conditions endured by the soldiers, it all culminated in a ‘quagmire’ of mud and fallen men.  The image has always stuck with me, reinforced by the war poets.


And today, after the most tumultuous week in post-World War Two British politics, the word ‘quagmire’ came to me again.  A sticky swamp of unreason seems as good a metaphor as any for the leaderless void in which we have found ourselves post-Brexit, with implosion in both the major parties, and economic and political uncertainty of a kind not seen for decades.  Events, dear boy, events doesn’t quite cover the pace of change in the last few days.  As the pictures of Somme commemorations shared the airwaves with latest machinations in Westminster, the Tory leadership contest and disorder in Labour, it was hard not to juxtapose these two vital periods in history.  And it occurred to me that First World War vocabulary has been around a lot – people talk of being ‘shell-shocked’ following the Brexit vote; ‘bombshells’ have been dropped, and both Boris Johnson and Angela Eagle have been styled Blonde Bombshells.  The language of political shocks was forged in wartime experience.  And the particular narrative of class division between leadership and frontline experience, which is part and parcel of the narrative of the First World War, resonates now: social media abounds with ‘lions led by donkeys’ echoes.


In the middle of all this, another part of the story seems more muted.  After the devastation of not just the First, but also the Second World War, countries came together to build a peace.  During the EU referendum there was a lot of talk about being bound together by fear – fear of outsiders on the one hand, fear of economic collapse on the other.  But there was little celebration of the power of internationalism for co-operation, for peaceful co-existence, for prevention of extreme abuses of power.  Many of the challenges we currently face cross borders – it’s not just about people.  Ideas – political, economic, scientific – are built on collaboration as well as contest, on wide debate as well as narrow self-interest.  These richnesses of stable cohabitation lie underneath the imperfect European Union.  I am keen to see how they can be preserved in some new form of partnership. It has been made more difficult, but we mustn’t give up now.


The other big story this week has been European football – and we all know how in the trenches at Christmas, British and German soldiers declared a truce and played football in no-man’s land.  As the England team dropped out of the Euros this week, and as our understanding of Brexit unfolded around a story that a long-overlooked population had decided to stick it to the man, I hope we have not forgotten how to play the ball.  That requires teamwork and an understanding of the other side.


Hillary and the revolution

8 Jun


Long ago when I was a politics student, my supervisor asked me to attend a seminar group he ran, and to give a presentation on an obscure philosopher who influenced Marx’s thinking. When I duly turned up, I found the class in a basement room, and as I opened the door, the smell of leather jackets, young men and old tobacco was strong.  I was the only woman in the room.  There was a kind of hanging silence as I said my piece and all the men nodded earnestly at various points and attended carefully.  At the end there was a bit of back and forward intellectualising, and we all got up to go.  One of the leather-jacketed hoard followed me out saying how impressed he was – there was an air of surprise in his commentary.


Later on my supervisor said that I’d done well and didn’t need to attend the rest of the course, just get on with my own thing.  I took this as a compliment and buckled down to my project – by this time I was known as ‘the girl who did theory’.


In retrospect, I’ve wondered how good a thing it was not to carry on around the table with the leather jacket brigade, as they built their social capital on metaphorical beard-stroking (this was pre-hipster) over the subtleties of different forms of dialectical materialism.  Meanwhile I plugged away in splendid isolation, and left university with good marks for my Marx studies, and a lifetime supply of quotes to insert into political arguments …


I was reminded of my lonely furrow as woman of the Left, when news came through that Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination for the US presidency. Of course, the problem for many – notably Sanders supporters – is that she is just not Left enough, that she is undesirably hawkish, too close to Wall Street, too much of a throwback to a previous flawed regime.  These issues have rather overshadowed the milestone of her achievement of becoming the first woman to make it to nominee to contest the Presidency in the USA – a country with even lower political representation of women than the UK, where 29% of MPs are female.  And it made me think that women’s fight for recognition and for power has often been a side order with someone else’s revolution;  how the Left in various guises has been known to put feminism on the backburner, while the struggle for systemic change goes on with other priorities.  I understand where these arguments come from, but it is extraordinary quite how quickly the issue of women’s representation – that’s over half the population we’re talking about –  can be subsumed under other considerations.


I have no illusions as to the flaws of Hillary as a candidate, but it is worth remembering how she has got there.  It has been by sitting at the table and carving a space in what remains a world designed largely by and for men.  A world in the USA, where reproductive rights and employment protection for parents are not universally provided, and where childcare is even more patchily available than here, and just as unaffordable for many. On these issues, she has a reasonable record.  And as for other progressive issues in social policy, foreign policy, environment and so on, she seems no more or less flawed than her predecessors.  Even Obama has not been perfect, nor has he delivered conclusively on every issue to which the ‘hopey-changey’ thing aspired. In the recent documentary series on BBC2 ‘Inside Obama’s White House’, one of the most striking parts was where Obama admitted his frustration that as President of the United States, there were times when there was little he could do to make things happen.  Even this power is limited. But Hillary can make something happen for women by taking her place at the highest table of all, and showing that this is possible.  Or you could give the whole handcart over to Donald Trump – but that’s not my kind of revolution either.

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